Monday, May 31, 2010

Memoirs: The Great War

It's hard to believe that World War One happened almost one hundred years ago. It has faded more and more into memory. Last I checked there are only three veterans from the conflict still alive.

I was recently reading Mr. Punch's History of the Great War (and it's here on google books as well) and then came across an article about photos of the Gallipoli campaign that were saved from the trash heap in, of all places, Vancouver. To quote the article:
He said the fortuitous find is a reminder of how important it is to ensure historic images are properly archived.
The Great War is well archived of course. There are any number of memoirs and accounts that help give the perspectives of the combatants on all sides. has diaries and memoirs among other information. Heritage of the Great War is a site in English and Dutch that is filled with stories, histories, and accounts. It has a large section on Great Writings of the Great War which links to novels, memoirs, and other books from the Great War and about the Great War. You could get lost in those links for days.

Even though the war started almost a century ago it still holds some surprises. One of the biggest for me is the number of colour photos that were taken during the war. Yes... colour. While Heritage of the Great War has some of these, the best collection I've found is the aptly named World War I Color Photos. Even in the small number of colour photos that survive there are surprises. Among the pictures that you'd expect there are pictures of the African soldiers who fought on the Western Front. We don't expect to see Senegalese or Algerians soldiers.

Men who lived through the war took the time to explain what they went through. To tell us what they thought was important and to share what they experienced. Usually with the hope no one else would have to go through the same experiences again. If we want to learn from them we better start paying attention to what they were trying to tell us.

Reading their words is the first step.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Follow Up: The Head of The Khan Academy Speaks...

I wrote about the Khan Academy as a magnificent obsession. Considering how big it is I could have written about it as if it is one of the net's obvious sources.

Sal Khan gave a presentation at Gel 2010. He gives more insight into how the Khan Academy was started. And as he talks with the audience he points out some of the things he ended up doing right even if those things weren't intentional or planned. It's a good place to start knowing more about the person who's going to end up having taught a lot of the world a lot of subjects.

Friday, May 28, 2010

History: Secret Documents of an Evil Empire

It was over 25 years ago that Ronald Reagan first publicly referred to the Soviet Union as the evil empire. Certainly on the list of regimes that have done horrific things during the twentieth century the Soviet Union ranks at or near the top. But how evil was it?

A Hidden History of Evil by Claire Berlinski is an article that covers two archives of pilfered soviet era documents. The article itself is based on the assumption that the Soviet Union is an evil empire. There is no equivocating on that score. The article's last paragraph begins:
We rightly insisted upon total denazification; we rightly excoriate those who now attempt to revive the Nazis’ ideology. But the world exhibits a perilous failure to acknowledge the monstrous history of Communism.
Under the occasionally heavy rhetoric is a tale about thousands of documents. Documents from the inner circles of soviet power. The two archives in question are most likely treasure troves of new information on what was going on in the mind of the soviet leadership. They may help clarify and explain lots of actions and decision of a previous era. They also seem to implicate a number of politicians in the west as being overly sympathetic to the soviet cause.

But do they offer a fair picture? And do they give any insight into a bigger question. The question of whether evil exists. Or more precisely - whether Evil, with a capital E, exists.

Which is a question for another time.

Back on the subject of the documents let me leave you with a simpler question. If the private notes, letters, discussions, and behind the scenes wheeling-dealings of your country's politicians were collected in a large pile for all to peruse and read.... how would your country appear? Saintly? Evil? Incompetent? How would your country come across?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Current Financial Meltdown Explained

Trying to understand the basis of the current economic crisis seems almost impossible. It seems so esoteric and convoluted that there seems to be no good explanations in the mainstream press. The people who should be helping us by explaining what happened haven't been doing a very good job.

So let me point you to Shocking Fraud from Financial Scum from Good Math, Bad Math. It turns out the best explanation I've come across is from a science blogger.

An earlier and just as useful explanation of the sub-prime mortgage mess comes from two comedians - John Bird and John Fortune. Here's a video explaining the Subprime Banking Mess. What's amazing is that the reason they propose for why a bailout is necessary was not actually used. I almost expected politicians to use it to explain the need to spend billions on people and companies that created the crisis that stole billions.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Reminisces: And Then He Was Gone...

It's hard to disappear off the 'net. We're tied so tightly to our online presence. We like our email, blogs, websites, calendars, and social networks. We may dream or threaten to leave once in a while but I think most of us have come to accept that some part of our lives is lived online. We have a presence in cyberspace and we don't wish to leave it.

Plus it's hard to imagine how to pull the plug and just leave. How would you do it? How would you erase most of the traces of yourself online? And don't just think about abandoning things. I'm talking about removing as much of your online presence as possible when you go.

So when a well known hacker, writer, programmer, and all around online personality just dropped off the face of the earth the shock was immense. He not only disappeared, he took with him most of his work.

Smashing magazine's _Why: A Tale of a Post-Modern Genius is a good synopsis of what we know of the person known as _why the lucky stiff, or just _why. It's the tale of a person who threw his personality and offbeat way of looking at things into all his work and who one day... just disappeared.

In August 2009 as soon as he disappeared there was article, after article, after article all wondering why _why had gone. Aside from lamenting the loss and wondering why it happened the online community, especially the online community around the Ruby programming language, started to collect the copies of his work they could scrounge up. An effort was made to make sure that his digital legacy didn't completely disappear as well.

The Ruby programming language owes a lot of its current popularity to _why. Why's (poignant) Guide to Ruby is as weird an introduction to a programming language as you can read. It's personal, interesting, and uses cartoon foxes to help along the way. It's filled with great lines (some from the cartoon foxes) such as "Addiction is like Pokemon. Let's collect every cigarette ever!". It goes beyond being just a simple tutorial. It's a reflection of the person who wrote it. Ruby's spread from its homeland of Japan was hastened by _why's work.

We may never know why _why left. We may not know who he is. But he did have an impact while he was online. A community has saved his works and continues to keep his memory alive. And after all... isn't that all we can ask for when we go?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Magnificent Obsessions: From a Cube to a Pizza

There are people in the world who have the energy and drive to create magnificent obsessions. Jeff Varasano is a person who has obsessed magnificently at least twice in his life.

In the 80s I picked up a small book that detailed a method of solving the Rubik's Cube in under 45 seconds. Jeff Conquers the Cube in 45 Seconds - and you can to (also out as Conquer the Cube in 45 Seconds) was how I learned to solve the cube quickly. At the time most of the early published solutions were based on solving the cube layer by layer. You formed the bottom layer, filled in the middle, and then finished with the top layer. Jeff's version was to work from the corners in. The technique also had the option of simpler bits (sections that you could complete using only a couple of combinations but you may have to do them several times in a row) or more complicated bits (solving the same sections in fewer moves but you had to remember more move combinations). His method was good enough at the time to let him set a world record of 24.67 seconds at the age of 14.

I can blame thank Jeff for writing the book that I absorbed and memorized and that gave me some serious pre-computer geek cred. Everyone else in my high school who learned the cube used clunkier methods and they couldn't compete with me.

That's obsession number one. AN obsession that hasn't made a lasting impact on the web except that his method is still talked about and listed in various comparisons of how to do the cube. Jeff's second obsession, the one that has left an impact on the web, happened because he moved from New York to Atlanta.

Now there's nothing wrong with Atlanta. Great city. Great people. But... according to Jeff the pizza in Atlanta is awful. Nothing like the thin, quick cooked New York city pies he loved growing up. So what's a person to do?

Obsessively try to recreate New York pizza of course. While documenting every step of the way. From which flour and water. To how to get the dough just right. To which toppings to use. To how to jury-rig home ovens to get hot enough (he doesn't give details... but the secret is to bypass the locking mechanism and to use the high heat cleaning cycle). It's all there on his site. With links to what he considers the best pizzerias in the country, lots of pictures of how the perfect pie should look, and helpful advice on how to do it yourself.

I stumbled across Jeff's pizza page a couple of years ago when he was in full obsession mode but before he opened a restaurant in downtown Atlanta to finally bring good pizza to his new hometown. Varasano's Pizzeria is the obvious conclusion to this second obsession. Luckily he's kept all the details on how to create the perfect pie online for all of us to consider trying out ourselves.

I wonder if Jeff has another act to play out now that his restaurant is open? Will he be happy running his restaurant and sharing the perfect pizza? Or will he start obsessing about something else? Only time will tell.

Monday, May 24, 2010

History: Story Behind The Longest Day

Back in December last year I helped out at an exhibit held to celebrate International Day for People with Disabilities. I helped Lene set up her photos and had a nice time (except for some particularly bad singing during one of the presentations...).

As Lene points out we set up her photographs on the assigned table using a variety of hardcovers quickly purchased from the gift shop at Variety Village where the event was held. The books worked well as makeshift tripods and at the end of the day I returned them to the gift shop to be resold to someone else.

Yes. I returned the books.

I have lots of books as it is and I'm going to be behind on my reading even if I read non-stop for the rest of my days. I'm not a recovering bibliophile - I still collect and organize and covet books but these were just bought to be used as tripods.

Well... I lied a little. I didn't give back one of the books I bought. I kept The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan. I'd seen the movie repeatedly but I'd also heard good things about the book. So I didn't return it and I decided to give that copy a good home.

The book is amazing. Filled with specific details, grand overviews, lots of detailed recollections, and all written in an engaging style that makes the book hard to put down. As a collection of stories and memoirs of D-Day it is an achievement.

Just how much of an achievement it was and how profoundly it changed the landscape of memoirs, history, and journalism is the subject of a piece by Michael Shapiro in the Columbia Journalism Review. The Reporter Who Time Forgot is a biography of a book and its writer. A book that is a collection of memoirs and stories. Both the article and the book are great reads and I highly recommend them.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Follow Up: Monkey See... What Should We Do?

When I was looking at the senses I wrote about monkey see monkey do neurons. How the brain, in monkeys and in humans, follows along when we watch actions. The same neurons that fire when a monkey opens a nut fire when the monkey watches someone else open a nut. Hence the name. Though they are also called mirror neurons instead of monkey see monkey do neurons. Mirror neurons probably looks better in the scientific literature.

There are some interesting implications on what the existence of mirror neurons in our brains imply. After all if we act out what we see... then that may be the basis for empathy. If we can literally 'feel' in our minds what others are doing and experiencing then... is that how empathy forms?

Now I haven't been following up the science in detail so I don't know what the latest consensus is. And just because we can go through the motions doesn't mean that mirror neurons are the basis of emotional empathic responses. And even if that's shown to be true... it doesn't invalidate the other aspects of our nature and somehow just turn us into empathic beings.

Which is why a presentation from RSA Animate irks me so much. The Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce has put online a number of presentations and lectures given at events they've held. It's a fascinating series of talks on all sorts of topics. RSA Animate is a series of videos in which some of the lectures are played along with a sped up drawing of the key points, phrases, and ideas in the lecture. The 'animated' part is created using a large whiteboard. The effect is rather good. Lectures (or it seems edited versions of some lectures) are enhanced by watching someone draw notes for you as you watch.

One of the RSA Animate presentations is The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. Now the main substance is an interesting idea. Maybe even a very important one. But....

Part of the presentation is a few more details on the actual experiment that first showed mirror neurons. A few seconds later and he's telling us that research tells us we aren't wired for aggression or anger or violence but for sociability and affection and companionship.

Now I never thought human beings were 'just' violent at our cores. But I'm not sure we're 'just' empathic at heart either. As in much of science I suspect the reality is much more nuanced and grey than a black or white look at the world.

I'm not throwing out the overall idea of the talk. I'm not saying some of what he's proposing and talking about doesn't sound like a good idea. What I am saying is: Why do people take a little bit of research and assume that all the previous research and findings were completely wrong? I understand it's nicer to think of us as polite empathic creatures instead of violent self actualizers... but again... isn't probably more complicated than one or the other?

I like to think we all have better angels in our nature (to badly paraphrase) but I also know we aren't always angels. Humans are much more interesting than just angels or just devils. That's what I like about people.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Memoirs: Houston We Have a Problem

We all know the story of Apollo 13 right? We've all seen the movie. An oxygen tank explodes while Apollo 13 was enroute to the Moon, the Lunar  Module was used to keep the astronauts alive, and all three made it back to Earth safely. A shining moment of human ingenuity and survival in the face of extreme adversity. Simple right?

Well not so simple. Why did the tank blow up? Why wasn't the tank declared faulty ahead of time? Exactly what was done to allow the astronauts to get back to Earth successfully?

Last year a video made the rounds. James Lovell and Fred Haise talked about the mission of Apollo 13 and what happened before Apollo 13 during an event at the Kennedy Space Center. The video helps explain what happened and why. Unless you are a die hard space junkie I guarantee you'll learn something from listening to James Lovell speak.

Even more startling is that when you dig into it the oxygen tank was only one of the problems Apollo 13 had. The mission may not have even made it to orbit thanks to an unresolved problem in the second stage rocket engines. Don't believe me... then check out a 13 part series 13 Things that Saved Apollo 13.

I used to dream of going into space. Now... I'm not so sure. Whether by rocket or one of the new suborbital space planes... I have my doubts. Considering the harshness of the vacuum of space and the tiny little crafts designed to keep me alive if I travelled there... I don't think I could avoid remembering a quote from John Glenn's speech when he retired as a US Senator:
I guess the question I'm asked the most often is: "When you were sitting in that capsule listening to the count-down, how did you feel?" Well, the answer to that one is easy. I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of two million parts -- all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Magnificent Obsessions?: Keeping a Head Above Water

When I first defined Magnificent Obsessions I said it was when "a person or group puts untold effort and time into building their site. Part of you will wonder why. Another part of you will be in awe of the dedication and energy." 

I think this falls into the category of 'why?' because this is about a site that shows people walking on water. Okay... running on water. Apparently speed is important to make it work.

Now there is an old joke about us Canadians believing that Jesus walked on water. We just figured it was the middle of winter. But the water in question here isn't ice.

You see if this was just a simple online video of someone walking on water of the unfrozen variety I wouldn't be too impressed. If it was just a single web page I wouldn't be too impressed. But when the video is put together with the quality of a commercial video and everyone takes the idea so seriously... well... how can I resist.

Liquid Mountaineering is relatively new. It may only qualify as a magnificent obsession in the making. (A proto-obsession?) But what makings it has. From the opening post that admits:
We are still pioneering the sport and the techniques to run across water, but we’re pretty sure it could be the next big thing. We're truly lucky to live in this historic time when technology and human skill come together to make the impossible possible.
Through the video of their adventures and achievements in the field... Liquid Mountaineering has so much potential. Let's hope they keep pushing the limits of technology, human stamina, and human credibility for a while yet.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Reminisces: Pohl on Asimov

As a certified card carrying geek I've read more than my share of books written by Isaac Asimov. Not that I've read them all. He wrote or edited over 500 books so it's hard to even attempt the feat of being an Asimov completionist.

Asimov was one of a group of writers who helped create and define science fiction in the modern sense. They created fantastic stories that still stretch our imaginations and change the way we look at the universe. Another one of those writers is Frederik Pohl.

So it shouldn't have been a surprise that when I found Pohl's site The Way The Future Blogs that I should have found Asimov as well. Pohl has been writing about, among other things, the people that were instrumental in creating science fiction. The site is even billed as an online memoir. So far he's written 5 posts about Asimov with hints that there are more to come. Simply entitled Isaac (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 - so far) they give a glimpse into the mind and man who wrote the Foundation trilogy and created the 3 laws of robotics.

Actually they reveal that Isaac was given the three laws by John Campbell and the title "I, Robot" for the collection of the stories on robots was created by Pohl. And even he borrowed the title from "I, Claudius". History tends to be like that. Much of what we're sure we know tends to be more detailed, nuanced, and textured then we expected.

Pohl is taking the time to give insights into the people that have helped define the world we live in. Without people like Asimov we wouldn't have Star Wars or Star Trek. We wouldn't have the computer revolution the way we know it. These people helped us think beyond ourselves and our worlds. They helped us dream big and tackle the most human ideas and problems in a manner that captivates us to this day.

I can't wait for the Isaac posts to continue.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Film School in an Afternoon

A long long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....
I've always felt that the best movie you could use to explain the concepts taught in film school to people would be Star Wars. (Sorry... Star Wars IV: A New Hope) After all everyone has seen it and many people love it.

But I was wrong. I've changed my mind. Maybe we should use a bad movie as an example instead.

So may I present a film school education in an afternoon. A wonderful, if slightly NSFW, look at a movie that isn't so good - The Phantom Menace. (Sorry... Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace). Put together by Mike Stoklasa it is a hilariously funny and informative look at the movie. And you will literally have the majority of a film school education given to you in just over an hour.

Trust me on this. Even if you don't want to watch the entire video do yourself a favour and watch the first part. The section on having people describing characters is priceless. You'll never look at movie characters the same way again.

Originally I wanted to make this video review part of the ongoing topic of memoirs and histories. The main link wouldn't have been the video review. Star Wars has a long and complicated history. Skywalker didn't start out as an innocent kid but as General Starkiller. The original scripts and treatments are online for anyone to read. You can dig into the evolution of a classic movie at your leisure.

Even that wasn't going to be the main focus of the post. The centrepiece was to be Michael Kaminski's Secret History of Star Wars. Over a number of years Michael put together a book detailing the twists and turns along the way as Star Wars went from an idea to a finished movie. When I first came across the book Michael was releasing it online for anyone to read. Now the book is published and it's not freely available anymore.

Which leaves an interesting question completely unrelated to Star Wars and film in general. I downloaded an older version of the book from his website with his permission. I know I don't have the rights to release and share it. He didn't explicitly mention non-re-distribution but that's assumed. But should I feel bad that I have a legally obtained copy of a manuscript that can't be freely obtained anymore? Even if I recommend the version of the book I read to others (which was interesting though some of the writing needed a good rewrite and an editor) I can't treat the book as part of The Longer Web. It's not on the web anymore.

I'm not criticizing Michael's choice. Some authors who have manuscripts online have left them freely available even when they can be bought. Others have chosen to remove their manuscripts so the only way to read them is to buy the book. I don't know which is the better choice.

Considering how much research and how much time and effort Michael Kaminski put into his opus I hope he made the right choice. For then he may be able to apply that energy to another topic and keep writing.

Maybe he should write the secret history of The Phantom Menace.

Oh... If you want to further your film education may I recommend a couple other video reviews from Red Letter Media - Attack of the Clones and Avatar.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Memoir: An Unreal Job

Don't trust everything you read. Not everything should be taken at face value. Sometimes the whole story can't be told. People change names and details to protect themselves and others. Sometimes things are just made up completely. This is most probably something that is completely made up. It may be true with just the names changed but I doubt it.

We don't know who wrote The American Dream. It showed up on some forums in multiple parts and has been copied to the web for posterity.

Not only is it a fun and diverting read but it could also be used as a slacker's manual on how to get and maintain a dream job.

Not that I'd take it as good advice. Just potentially useful.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Biography: Last of the True Hackers

Being called a hacker is now considered a bad thing. A hack now refers to an exploit or an illegal activity. It wasn't always this way.

A hack used to refer to the *ahem* "re-configuring or re-programming of a system to function in ways not facilitated by the owner, administrator, or designer". The more elegant and unexpected the hack the better. Those who could perform those hacks were hackers in the older and better sense of the word.

By that standard Richard Stallman deserves the title Steven Levy gave him of "the last of the true hackers".

Most famous for starting the free software movement Stallman is a true character. An extremist in his views, dedicated to what he believes is right and correct, and completely unable to compromise. Which is why you get articles like St. Stallman: A Hero of the Highest Order that praises his ideas while confidently stating that he's wrong. If only because he's so extreme.

The whole story of Stallman and how he came to his ideas and the impact they've had is in the book Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software by Sam Williams. The book is available online to read for free.

For me thought his greatest hack isn't computer code. It's a license to put on software. A license that keeps things free by putting restrictions on what you can do with those free things. Think that sounds backwards and impossible? Here's how he did it.

Stallman believes that software should be free. Not that it should not cost money but that it should be free as in freedom. The phrase that's been often used to differentiate between free as in no cost and free as in the sense of freedom is "free as in beer" vs "free as in speech". Stallman believes that software should be "free as in speech".

When we buy software we tend to think we own it but that's not exactly true. We own a license to use a copy of the program. I can't buy one copy of Windows and resell it hundreds of times. I can't reverse engineer or hack the innards of my copy of Word. The software license doesn't allow it. The license is that long winded legalese we scroll through and click past. Remember those pages of small text that you "had" to read before opening the envelope with your newly purchased disks or CDs? That's the license.

If you buy a DVD you have a license to use that copy of that movie for your own personal use but you can't play that DVD in a theatre to a paying audience. When you buy a book you have ownership of that physical copy but you can't retype the latest hardcover bestseller and sell a paperback before the publisher does. The licenses don't allow it.

So in order to keep software free it needs a license that keeps it free. One that lets you know that you aren't restricted and can do many things with the software you wouldn't expect. Stallman wrote the GNU General Public License (or GPL) to do this. Many software projects have adopted the GPL as their license of choice in order to keep their software free as in speech. The GPL is one of the greatest hacks of all time.

Unlike the small print from most software corporations the GPL is surprisingly readable. It lacks intricate legalese and jargon. It does take a while to understand the implications of what it says though.

It states what freedoms you have if you receive or buy a program licensed with the GPL. You can use the program in any way you see fit. You have the right to access to the source code so that you can reprogram or change the software to your hearts content or just see what it does and how it works. You have the right to redistribute the program and even to sell it.

The hack comes into play when the GPL tells you what you must do and what you can't do. If you redistribute or sell the program (either in its original for or after you change it) you must also distribute the source code. If you distribute the software you can't restrict the purchaser. The person you distribute it to has to have the same rights you do. You can't take away any of the freedoms the license guarantees you. That person also can't remove the freedoms from the next person. To accept the license is to accept that the software has to stay free.

In other words... to keep something "free as in speech" you have to limit people's ability to remove freedoms. Counterintuitive but brilliant. It's a hack of the highest order.

There are other licenses for non-commercial software. Some allow people to take the program and restrict their copy and their changes. The GPL doesn't allow that at all. The opponents of the GPL (usually corporations or individuals who wish they could take GPL code and restrict it in some way) call the GPL viral. In that sense they are correct. If a program is created with the freedoms of the GPL attached they can never be removed. It will always be free.

This hack may be why so much open source software written by volunteers around the world is licensed using the GPL. They know that their contributions to the software won't be controlled or owned by a single corporate entity. Their work will be kept free. People may make money from it but those people can't stop others from using it for free. If you're going to dedicate time and effort into helping a software project it is nice to know your work won't be exploited mercilessly.

The GPL alone ranks Stallman as one of the greatest of the hackers in my books. And that's before any of his "real" programming work is considered. He is an extremist though. One whom I can understand but not fully agree with. I don't think all software has to be free or even should be free. I think every company and programmer should be able to choose how they license their programs. Not all software will be "free" because some people will decide their work shouldn't be shared and they should have the right to restrict their work. So while I prefer open source and free software I don't find myself actively avoiding commercial and closed software.

Yet Stallman's creation of the free software movement has helped make sure that we have the choice to make things free and that we have free options that aren't under corporate control. Much of the internet runs on free software and without Stallman, the GPL, and the free software movement much of that software wouldn't exist.

If you want to get an additional glimpse into the mind of a man who can deviously turn the entire licensing regime from one that restricts freedom into a regime that also has to enforce freedom then read a short story he wrote. Jinnetic Engineering is a perfect example of his mind at work. Let's be thankful minds like his exist.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

How Serious is Comedy?

I've touched on the idea that comedy can be very serious when I looked at Steve Martin's ideas about stand up comedy. Comedy is much more serious than that though.

After all we're not even sure why we have a sense of humour, how it works, or exactly why things are funny. The paper Humour Research: State of the Art (2002) (pdf) is a scholarly overview of humour research. But even that can only tell you what humour is.

What about how humour should be applied? When is it appropriate? When should it be avoided? How much is too much?

Never fear... there are pointers online to help. It turns out that Microsoft (yes... Microsoft...) can help. Now Microsoft it not a company known for it's innate sense of fun or humour though I'll give them some credit for Microsoft Bob. So you wouldn't suspect Microsoft as having any useful information about humour would you?

Microsoft has a section of their website dedicated to education. There are teaching plans, lesson plans and lots of resources. Of course there are endless links to Microsoft products and information on how to buy them and use them in educational settings. I'm not holding that against them, Microsoft is a for profit enterprise after all.

What I can hold against them is an article under the category of Educational Competencies. Yes... Microsoft has an incredibly bland, boring, and humourless article on Humor. Did you know there are various proficiency levels in humour?

When I read the article on humor as a competency I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Apparently I'm unaware of my own proficiency level in several competencies. Maybe I should check if I can become a  certified Microsoft Humor Professional....

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

History: Forget Making a Scene, it's Time for a New Art Form

I've written about the history of punk rock but now it's time to broaden musical horizons. Time for the history of the "great American art form" - Jazz.

What's odd is that while jazz is decidedly American it turns out not to be very popular in America. In Why Americans Don't Like Jazz Dyske Suematsu lists several reasons. He points out that to enjoy instrumental music you have to be able to abstract art. As a lover of instrumental works I completely agree. There's nothing wrong with a good ballad but I can get as lost in a work with no words in it at all. Yet many people seem unable to listen to a melody. And as he points out, to a non-English speaker all music with English singing is instrumental music. Which may be why jazz is more popular outside of its birthplace. Not that Dyske's ideas haven't been challenged.

Jazz itself, currently popular or not, has a rich history. There are many sites that try and explain the origins of jazz and capture the people and energy that created it. Most of these are short on content and long on adds and other links. Two do stand out but for different reasons.

A Passion for Jazz! has a great deal of information on a number of topics involving jazz. It's easy to get lost for a while reading and exploring but it doesn't quite let it all coalesce into a coherent history or story.

A History of Jazz Music is the online copy of a book by Piero Scaruffi. As a book concentrating on the history and evolution of jazz it helps put everything into perspective over time. But it doesn't meander into other topics involving jazz.

Together they help put together the story of jazz. Now we just have to figure out how to get people to listen. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Obvious Sources: Project Gutenberg

There are some sources online that are so well known and so widely used that I just assume everyone knows about them. Then I stumble across people who haven't heard of one. Obvious Sources are posts dedicated to those resources we should all know about.
In this world of copyrights and licenses people forget one of the most valuable resources available - the public domain. Works that are old enough lose protection under the law and become part of our shared heritage and culture. At some point every book and document will become available to be read, published, folded, mangled, and/or mutilated by anyone for any reason.

Getting the books and documents off of dusty shelves an into a digital form is a huge undertaking. Google Books may be scanning books by the thousands but those are transcribed by machine and can be full of errors. The original project to type, proofread, and distribute texts is Project Gutenberg.

Since 1971 Project Gutenberg's founder and an ever changing group of volunteers have created a massive resource. We have an ever growing collection of public domain works thanks largely to the inspirational and foundational work done by the Project.

The Project Gutenberg files are mostly just text. Images are included when appropriate but the bulk of the material is simple text. No need for special software or hardware. You don't need an e-reader or a certain type of computer. However if you do have an e-reader or other device there are other sites that have taken some of the works and reformatted them for you. Feedbooks and Manybooks are two sites that allow you to read the classics on whatever device you happen to own.

If you want audio versions of these books there are a couple of options. Project Gutenberg has many works that are read by computer. Not surprisingly these are not ideal listening material. LibriVox and Literal Systems provide  and ever growing list of works narrated by human beings.

There are thousands of books spanning hundreds of years that are there for the taking. Enjoy!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Memoir: Nothing New When Dealing with One's Enemy

Prior to 2001 the image of Muslims in the American media wasn't exactly a positive one. Since 9/11 it's only gotten worse. That one's perceived enemies are portrayed in a less than flattering light is human nature. "They" have to be worse than "Us". This isn't a new phenomena at all.

My Four Years in Germany was written in 1917 by James W Gerard. Gerard had been the American ambassador to Germany from 1913 to 1917 . The book is rabidly anti-German. I can't imagine that Gerard would be appointed ambassador if he was that anti-German in 1913 but stranger things have happened.

Strangely the book ties back to the modern American media nicely. It turns out that the film version of the book was Warner Brother's first nationally syndicated film. The portrayal of Germans in the film is much worse than the current portrayal of Muslims. The New York Times' overview of the movie gives details on some of the scandals caused by the horrors depicted on screen.

For instance Chicago's mayor wanted some of the more graphic and lurid parts of the movie removed and was then accused of being pro-German. This could be ripped from our headlines now. Just change the name of our 'enemies'.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Memoirs: Remembering What Must Never be Forgotten

The USC Shoah Foundation Institute is the largest collection of video testimony on the Holocaust. The Holocaust is one of the events that will forever define the 20th century.

Holocaust was once a general term used to describe massacres and mass slaughter. During World War II the term was applied to all Nazi atrocities. In the last forty or fifty years the term has been narrowed specifically the the genocide of Jews.

No matter how you partition and name the crimes of the Nazis the numbers are staggering. 6 million Jews, over 2 million Soviet POWs, over 1.8 million Poles, up to a quarter of a million disabled, and that's only the beginning. The estimates of the number of Romani killed varies wildly between 220,000 and 1.5 million. The number reaches 11 million people in total.

If you go beyond the Holocaust and look into civilians killed in Nazi occupied areas during the war the numbers keep growing. One estimate adds another 6 million Soviet civilians. Taking the count to the logical extreme and the estimates of the Nazi death toll for non-combat related deaths (democide - which includes genocide, politicide, and mass murder) is a staggering 21 million.

Much has been written about the Holocaust since the war. Much of the material consists of personal memoirs and stories. There is so much material that scholarly works can be based on nothing but how to understand the works available. Introduction to and Bibliography of Central European Women's Holocaust Life Writing in English by Lousie Vasvari is an example.

The unspeakable has to be recorded and remembered. Countless books and memoirs have been written on the Holocaust. Yet there is something fundamentally more moving about watching and listening to survivors. Sometimes books don't have the same impact as watching a person tell their story.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

These are the Chinese

The Chinese language may be hard to learn but over a billion people speak it daily. Those billion people are not one single group or ethnicity.

There are over 50 ethnic minorities in China. The 8% of the Chinese population that aren't Han have their own distinct culture and traditions. The Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco has some details into what makes up an ethnic minority.

The ethnic minorities are part of a recent photo essay or family portrait. If you want a few more details on each of them Paul Noll's Chinese Nationalities and Their Populations is a good starting place.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

History: It Only Looks Like Monopoly Money

Americans like to say that Canadian money looks like Monopoly money because it isn't as drab and dreary as their own currency. In this case it turns out that Americans are behind the times and not being modern for regardless of the continuous forward march of progress Americans don't want to give up plain green money.

Even the newly announced 100 dollar bill is no improvement. Almost all the added colour is just on specific anti-counterfeiting measures. So far the biggest online controversy about the new bill is related to typography. Yes... people are complaining about helvetica on the money.

The rest of the world is leaving America in the dust when it comes to currency design. Don't just use colour to prevent counterfeiting. Why not use colour to great effect? I suppose since it is the still the de facto currency of the world America wants the dollar to seem solid, old, and unchanging. I wonder if the designs will change more radically if the Euro becomes the new currency of world trade?

Americans don't get to see too much international currency every day of course. Most of us see only our own currency. As America's biggest trading partner it's not surprising that Canadian currency is the foreign currency most often encountered by Americans. That's why only the Canadian dollar gets the nickname of Monopoly money.

Turns out the Canadian dollar hasn't always been that colourful. The Bank of Canada has a free book on the History of the Canadian Dollar. It touches on the history of currency in Canada, the history of the Bank of Canada, and the ever changing link between the Canadian dollar and other currencies. Foreign exchange and monetary issues are covered in summary throughout the book. This isn't a photo history of Canadian currency. It's a more general history.

What's interesting is how something as seemingly simple as the history of one country's money has to involve everything from world affairs, wars, and politics. Whether greenbacks, monopoly money, the yen, or the Euro it's all interrelated and interconnected.

No one has a monopoly on money anymore.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Magnificent Obsessions: Not Computer Teaching as We Knew It

For the best educational videos on an ever growing list of subjects visit the Khan Academy.

Math from "1+1" through to advanced calculus. Physics, biology, chemistry, and finance are also covered with more being created all the time. All of them the work of one man - Salman Khan.

Khan Academy videos seem to break all the rules of educational videos. There is no on screen instructor - Salman Khan is just a voice over. Many of the videos have nothing but a black screen on which Salman draws and writes on using his offscreen graphics tablet. Some of the videos do have backgrounds that aren't just black. The chemistry videos may have an onscreen periodic table for instance. Even then the backdrops are for writing and drawing on.

He doesn't seem to work from a detailed script. He knows what he wants to cover and he gets to it. He makes mistakes and corrects himself. He uses phrases like "super duper strong" and other colloquialisms. He doesn't talk down to students or lecture endlessly. All the things that just "are not done" in most educational videos are the things that make these videos so accessible.

The collection is growing. The list of topics ever expanding. I don't know if Salman Khan will be able to continue doing this for as long as he wants. He started by using his own savings as he put together this free resource. Here's hoping he finds funding, donations, or grants and continues for a long time. Even if he doesn't continue much longer his obsession has already created an educational resource that is freely available and never going away.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Memoir: One Who Inspired McLuhan and Helped Define Canada

I seem to be posting about the Canadian experience a great deal. No surprise there I'm Canadian myself so consider me biased. Up next is the memoir of a Canadian intellectual giant.

It's interesting to come across a memoir that, until recently, no one knew about. Even more interestingly the writer of the memoir is the subject of several biographies. I'm not sure whether even the recent biographers had access to this memoir as they wrote.

In 2004 the Canadian Journal of Communication published Memoir of Harold Adams Innis: Covering the years 1894-1922. Innis lived until 1952 and was writing his memoirs at the time of his death. Memoirs which were only known to his family until their publication. This may be a unique chance to compare what biographers have come up with and what the subject himself said.

The subject in question is Harold Innis. A Canadian scholar who wrote some important works on economics and on the media. He looked at the Canadian experience in economic and technical terms. He wrote about the Canadian Pacific Railway and its impact on the country. He wrote the seminal work on the economic history of the fur trade. The trade that helped establish Canada.

His work on the media predates and heavily influenced Marshal McLuhan. McLuhan took Innis' ideas on writing and print and extended them into his own more expansive ideas. McLuhan didn't come up with his ideas in a complete vacuum. "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants" if I may quote Isaac Newton.

An overview of Innis' work and its relation to the work of McLuhan is at the Library and Archives of Canada. Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan is a good place to read about some of the most important intellectual ideas of the 20th century.

The Canadian Journal of Communication also published an essay about Harold Innis' memoir by one of his biographers. Paul Heyer's History from the Inside is a fascinating read in its own right that gives additional insight into the memoirs.

Harold Innis didn't complete his memoirs. He managed to cover his early years and his experiences in the WWI. Including some details about the attack on Vimy Ridge which was a turning point for Canadian nationalism. Regardless of how Vimy is looked upon by history it's important to remember it was a battle. A bloody battle. The Great War had a profound influence on Innis. His memoirs describe much of the war in simple matter of fact terms. He spares us the horrors of war and yet here and there he reminds us that it was a war. During his description of the attack he writes simply that:
At first, when the barrage lifted, the skyline was filled with a line of men who had gone over the top and were in the German trenches before the Germans had a chance to recover from the effects of the barrage. Small groups of German prisoners began almost immediately to filter back, as did groups of the wounded and of course the dead were to be found scattered over the whole area, both German and ours. The advance continued steadily as the second and third lines of German trenches were taken. The barrage lifted and the dugouts either mercilessly bombed and the men inside killed or the men allowed to come out and be taken prisoner.